I’ve started working on the illustrations for my first-to-be-published novel! I’m really excited and I’ve got all my fingers and toes crossed that this whole thing works out.
In the meantime, I’m really interested by the illustration process–it’s not unlike writing in that a piece of work can go through multiple drafts, stages of working out the concept, the actual content, and the technical details. I thought maybe you’d be interested in the process, too, so let me take you through the process with one illustration. The story is set three and a half million years ago, in Africa, by the way.
Basically, this is a picture of an australopithecine man (named Gethrie) standing in a tree, in a nest made of sticks, and handing a baby monkey up to her mother. Why is he doing this? I’m not telling, you’ll have to read the book! The hair on his head looks spiky because I decided that adult australopithecine males have manes.
Concept sketches don’t always work, but this one did–I like the composition and all the basic decisions I’ve made about how to execute it. For example, although both the australopithecine and the adult monkey have black skin (and the skin shows on their faces and hands) I left them uncolored. Dark faces, I decided, would present too many technical problems for a small ink drawing.
But the adult monkey is causing technical problems. The posture I put her in looks too apelike, especially the position of her left arm. Monkeys, unlike apes and humans, have narrow, more doglike shoulders. Another complication is that these are colobus monkeys and they don’t have thumbs. That, again, must influence how they they climb.
So, I tried doing a few studies of monkeys, but again they look too apelike. The one on the right actually looks lizardlike. The problem is I don’t know enough about colobus monkeys–drawing pictures from my imagination won’t solve that. Time to hit the Internet!
So, I looked colobus monkeys. The species in the story is fictional, but it still must look like a believable member of the colobus group. These are medium-size arboreal monkeys that live almost exclusively on leaves, not fruit. Using the pictures I found online, I drew several posture studies.
Having solved the monkey problem, I drew a semi-final sketch at twice the size of the concept sketch and sent it and the other semi-finals for the book to my editor for approval. I don’t know whether I needed to do that, but I’m glad I did. She liked them, but suggested I add more background detail, so the reader will be able to see the rather fantastic world I’ve been describing.
Note that I’ve given the adult monkey some stripes but have not colored the hair of the baby monkey or of Gethrie. I’m sticking with my decision not to color in these characters, but they adult monkey has a color pattern, not just a color. That pattern is distinctive of her species (it is the inverse of the pattern of the real black-and-white colobus), so I included it. The other two have solid, or nearly solid coloring, so little is lost by leaving them as just line drawings.
Creating more background for the final version presented a new problem. In this case the background is the inside of a tree canopy, a mangosteen, according to the text. True mangosteens are Indian, not African, but I meant the African relative, Garcinia livingstonii, or some hypothetical extinct relative of it (the book doesn’t specify). The problem is, I’ve never seen this plant, or any other Garcinia species.
Back to the internet.
Garcinia livingstonii is a small to medium size tree with very dense foliage and, to my eyes, an odd look. The leaves appear to sprout directly from the branches, so that the tree looks something like a dense bouquet of stiff garlands. Probably, the leaves are carried on short spur branches. Saplings, in fact, have only a main trunk with several of these garlands sprouting off at angles. I can’t tell whether adult trees have the same structure or have secondary or even tertiary branches–the foliage is too dense to see. I also can’t tell how often adult trees branch or how thick the trunk is relative to the height.
Finally, I just guessed, although my picture retains the dense foliage, the pointed-oval leaf-shape, the doubled trunk (common in G. livingstonii, from what I’ve read) and the angles of branch to trunk and twig to branch (which are, unexpectedly, different). As per the descriptions I’ve read, the leaves come out in whorls of two to four. I gave the branches the same pattern because trees are, roughly speaking, fractals. The arrangement of leaves on the twig gives rise to the arrangement of twigs on the branch and then branches on the trunk, as the tree grows.
Here is part of the final picture. It is much more detailed than the sketches because it is much bigger–something like eight times the size of the concept sketch. Illustrators typically work much bigger than book-size so that when the publisher shrinks the picture down it has a lot of detail. The tree has become not merely background but a character in the picture, along with the australopithecine and the monkeys. It is not just a mangosteen, but a particular mangosteen, one missing a few branches because the australopithecine broke them off to build his nest.
Since this tree can’t be very large, I had to put the nest quite close to the trunk. That required moving the monkey closer to and more directly above the australopithecine. Since she is looking at her baby, that means we can no longer see her face, only the top of her head. Unfortunate, but unavoidable.
I could, and might, color the picture in with paint, but the illustration in the book will be the black-and-white line drawing. Color prints are expensive, and raise the price of the book beyond what a first-time novelist can expect to command.
Perhaps someday when I am rich and famous I will put out a new edition in full color?